In conversation with the two prolific authors and editors of the ghost story anthology ‘Darkness There But Something More’, Dr. Santosh Bakaya and Lopamudra Banerjee. The book has recently been published by The Blue Pencil and is available in Amazon and Flipkart.
The blurb of the book ‘Darkness There But Something More’, the first baby of The Blue Pencil in collaboration with The Significant League and Sristisukh Print, Kolkata says it all:
“Who has not been intrigued and enthralled by the spirit world, ghosts, other-worldly beings, or in other words, the paranormal? Ambiguous presences around us, whether in the form of orally narrated stories by our grandparents, or in the form of haunting, riveting supernatural stories in books and movies have held us in their spell, engaging, alluring us even to this date.
In fact, the prominence of paranormal investigators, ghostbusters and others documenting the other-worldly in today’s age overpowered by science and technology only points to the fact that we crave to push our boundaries as rational beings and delve into the phenomena which we cannot define or explain tangibly.
This anthology of 30 selected ghost stories by authors dispersed all over the globe celebrates the spine-chilling thrills and sense of awe and bewilderment of this very inexplicable world inhabited by the other-worldly beings. Come, experience the cataclysmic, weird, and at times, benevolent spirit world and you will never have a dull moment in this roller-coaster ride!”
In a candid conversation with the two editors of the anthology, Dr. Santosh Bayaka and Lopamudra Banerjee (Lopa), we attempted to know how the subject of ghost stories appealed to them, and how the book took shape from an online ghost story contest to its final print and Kindle version on Amazon. An exclusive feature from the LnC desk!
LnC: What made you come up with the concept of a ghost story contest?
Santosh Bakaya: Let me begin from the beginning. I have always been fascinated by ghost stories, right from the time, my professor father used to relate ghost stories to us, stories which my siblings forgot, but which remained etched in my memory.
Let me make an honest confession now, so many years after the crime was committed. In school, while the Maths and Civics classes used to be in full swing, I would be busy colouring my notebooks with my so called creative outpourings, and most of them used to be ghost stories. Once I was even caught, but the teacher loved the story so much that she read it out to the class , and after that she would ask me every day , “any new story ?”
The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs was my dad’s favourite supernatural short story, and we listened fascinated as he related it to us with all the appropriate gestures, sounds and dramatic pauses.
It was from my childhood days that I wanted to bring out my own collection of ghost stories. I have written quite a few, and will compile them someday. But, in the meantime, I hit upon this idea of a ghost story contest.
Lopa Banerjee: As for me, I always seemed to have a keen interest in the esoteric and the unknown, the mysterious, and my background in literature and also avid interest in films portraying the other world have only fueled this interest. The enigma of the world beneath the mundane flesh-and-blood world has intrigued me to no ends. Be it the dark, murky world of the three witches, Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or the sombre, haunting spirit world of the Mughal times and the captivating, mysterious woman in Tagore’s Ksudhito Pashan (The Hungry Stone), the exploration of the other-worldly has filled me with an insatiable awe and wonder that has been hard to resist since my college days.
Be it in the Veda or in the scriptures of our ancient culture, it has always been propagated that we are not only flesh and bones and our ‘Atma’, the greater consciousness, that never perishes, is a vital driving force of nature. So as a conscious exercise, I always ask myself what happens to us after we exit the physical world. Though I have known there are quite a few schools of thoughts regarding out of the body experiences, the paranormal and the supernatural, one contradicting the other, the thought that there is a realm engulfed in mystery and speculation and will remain like that for many, many years, gives me goosebumps.
It is this ongoing quest in my mind that resonated with the infectious vigour of Dr. Santosh Bakaya in narrating her own ghost story The Boulder and in curating mind-blowing stories infested with other-worldly beings, and thus, gradually, organically, our book ‘Darkness There But Something More’ took shape. While trudging the road, I also happened to pen my own story in the collection, which came to me rather unexpectedly, as it is actually my first short story written about the spirit world.
LnC: When you thought of the prompts, what exactly did you have in mind? Was it to make the writers start thinking on the same lines and then develop their own streams and see how it went? Or was it to throw a set of challenges and see how they fare in the obstacle race?
Santosh Bayaka: As one of the administrators of this very vibrant writers’ group, THE SIGNIFICANT LEAGUE, headed by Dr. Ampat Koshy, Pushcart nominee- poet-critic- anthologist, I often give the members writing prompts. So one day, I gave them a picture prompt asking them to write a ghost story around a certain picture. When I thought of the prompt, I just had this in mind, that if the contestants write the stories, it will indeed be a great collection of short stories, and we might even get them published.
Lopa Banerjee: I remember that I came on-board last December for this project when the ghost story picture prompt was already given and many writers in TSL had churned out excellent stories based on those prompts. The challenge of the ‘bench stories’ initiated by Santosh Bakaya ma’m had turned out into a massive success within the group, as it had fueled the writers’ imagination and creativity in many inexplicable and unimaginable ways, and so had the ‘Weave a Ghost Story’ contest in Learning and Creativity.
When we had received a considerable number of really spine-chilling stories woven around the picture prompt, we discovered that it was a challenge accepted wholeheartedly by the writers with a brilliant outcome, and now we could think of going ahead to the next level—i.e., bringing out the collection as an anthology in Kindle and also in print.
LnC: Tell us about the sequence of this contest – the bench stories and then the 10 words and one-line prompt for LnC contest. Was it planned or spontaneously developed depending upon the responses received?
Santosh Bakaya: No, it was not at all planned. It was an absolutely spontaneous decision. The idea of the Bench stories occurred to me, when I came across an absolutely run-down and shabby looking bench in the park that I go to, for my morning walks. Immediately on seeing the bench, I thought that many a ghost story could be woven around it, and that was that!
There was such a tremendous response to it that I hit upon another prompt – this time a collaborative venture with Learning and Creativity – and what a hit it was!
The participants were asked to weave a ghost story beginning with the line: “She woke up to find a figure seated on the only chair in the room, looking weirdly at her.” There was a list of words which were to be used in the story: PURSE, CELEBRATION, LIGHTS, SENTINELS, DEVASTATING, LAUGHING STOCK, GUFFAW, PREDICTION, TELEPATHY, HOBO, and HEY PRESTO! was to appear twice in the ghost story.
Lopa Banerjee: Yes, I too fondly remember the madness, the euphoria and the indomitable curiosity sparked in both of us editors when we received one story after another following the announcement of the prompts of ‘Weave a Ghost Story’ in LnC, and also how much of a hard time both of us had in picking and choosing the winners of those spine-chilling story submissions. While choosing the winners, we based our decision on these aspects:
(i) narration and storytelling
(ii) the innovative and most creative use of the 10 words and one-line prompt
(iii) originality of the depiction of the ghost stories and how much of a haunting effect they had, after the reading was over.
It was really a daunting task as many stories were superbly narrated, keeping in mind all these aspects.
LnC: What made you think of compiling the selected contest entries into a book that would have a Kindle and paperback edition?
Santosh Bakaya: The response was so tremendous and the stories so intriguing, that the stories cried to be compiled in book form. Moreover the winning writers were also very insistent that is should have both a kindle version and a paperback edition.
Lopa Banerjee: And let me add here, that Darkness There But Something More is a mind-blowing compilation of not only these winning entries and special mention/honorable mention entries of the ghost story contest, but also some very subtly woven, spine-chilling fictional narratives by award-winning authors, including Santosh Bakaya Ma’am herself, Reena Prasad, Dr. AV Koshy, Dr. Sunil Sharma, Michele Baron, among others. All these stories, edited and compiled in a single anthology is, I would say, a celebration of the mystery of a seemingly existing life beyond the peripheries of our mundane realities, hence we were very excited to publish it in the book form, both in Kindle as well as in paperback.
LnC: The title of the book itself is dripping with suspense. How did you strike upon that?
Santosh Bakaya: We brainstormed a lot, I would suddenly get up at night, my head brimming with titles. In the darkness, they appeared perfect, but in the morning, I would be embarrassed by the juvenility of the titles.
Then Edgar Allen Poe’s raven cawed! This famous narrative poem of Poe was an all-time favourite of mine too, and had fetched me the first prize in an elocution contest in school, and was hence always at the back of my mind. And things fell in place. We decided to tweak the famous line of The Raven, DARKNESS THERE AND NOTHING MORE, and our title after a lot of head-banging became DARKNESS THERE BUT SOMETHING MORE. We discussed it with many, and they loved it, and since then many have said that they love the title.
Lopa Banerjee: The selection of the title, I agree with Santosh Ma’am, was the most intriguing and memorable experience in the whole process of giving shape to the book. In fact, we were also asked what made us come up with this title in our Kolkata launch of the anthology in Weaver’s Studio, on July 30, by one of our panelists, and the moderator Amit Shankar Saha, a poet/writer and scholar, when we talked about the representation of the spirit world in literature and popular media. We had both answered that the title, sourced from Edgar Allen Poe, is actually a celebration of the power and allure of darkness embodied by the extra-terrestrial beings around us. I have no doubts in my mind that the power of darkness is overwhelming, and our book is a testimony to this overpowering darkness that engulfs us.
LnC: Do you think ghost stories have seen a transformation from the kind of spooky tales that were there in literature earlier and the kind of ghosts we have now as characters?
Santosh Bakaya: Gothic literature was popular then, and it is popular now. But still, there has definitely been a transformation from the time we, as kids, used to read ghost stories, whimpering under the quilts in the darkness.
One of the first books that I read in school was Rebecca  by Daphne Du Maurier, a classic gothic horror story, complete with a sprawling mansion, a storm, fog, fire and the lurking presence of the first wife, and Mrs Denvers, a creepy, sinister villain [I got this book as a prize in another declamation contest ] and red herrings, countless small clues, strewn all over. I still remember the power that the opening line, “last night, I dreamt, went to Manderley again.”
It is with a chill of horror that I recall, Dad relating stories from The Dunwich Horror and Others by H. P Lovecraft, and being absolutely horrified by the grotesque cruelty of his characters. The memory of the creepy little town in ‘Dunwich Horror’ and the man ignorant of his demonic parentage is still with me. This was definitely not psychological horror. But real cold-blooded horror. No ambiguity about it. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was so creepy and terrifying.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is undoubtedly a literary masterpiece, where we find human traits in the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, and it is said that it was so horrifying that it scared the author herself.
Earlier, the horror genre was partaken of by the readers sparingly, but now, it has more takers than in the past. We have an entire breed of young horror writers, writing about the paranormal, about vampires, ghosts and shape shifting monsters.
I don’t know whether others will agree with me, but, with the onset of rationalism, I find the situation rather paradoxical. On the one hand, we find the stories are more open-ended. The reader is left wondering whether the creepy characters inhabiting the books are supernatural entities or human monsters, malevolent spirits, or merely the overwrought imagination of the protagonists. Despite this, the horror genre is gaining more and more popularity – it is getting more readers, becoming more visceral.
The Amityville Horror [Jay Anson, 1977], was made into a film, which went on to have a staggering number of sequels. Moreover, in order to make these films appear more authentic, there is the growing trend of adding a soupcon of verisimilitude by interviewing the so-called real-life people who have supposedly been at the receiving end of such horrors.
We have indeed come a long way from such popular short stories like The Phantom Rickshaw [1888, Rudyard Kipling], which the narrator Jack, keeps seeing around the town, even after its owner is dead, or the blood- curdling cries emanating from a Victorian country mansion in The Open Door [1885, Mrs. Margarte Oriphant] or the The Cold Hand [1846, Felix Octavius Carr Darley] which torments an overnight guest.
At present, there is no dearth of horror stories themed around werewolves, vampires, haunted dolls, cryptids, looming silhouettes with bloodshot eyes, invaders from another dimension with a tang of the real. Ghosts were popular then, and they are popular now. Darkness intrigued then, it intrigues now.
Lopa Banerjee: As I have written in the editorial of Darkness There, the gothic and the eerie has visited me in all their elemental, visceral beauty right from my college days when the three witches of Macbeth and their boiling cauldron, their spooky prophecies and the incantation, commemorating on the spirit world used to hold me in an irresistible spell. Also, in Emily Bronte’s deeply gothic love saga Wuthering Heights, the thrill and allure of Catherine’s spirit visiting the mansion and haunting her beau, the dark, sinister Heathcliff has its charm even today when we read contemporary stories of the horror genre where the paranormal is situated in the current context.
The element of horror, combined with the adequate concoction of chill, suspense and fantasy has held its sway on sensitive, passionate minds of all ages, in all times. It had allured thousands of readers when Tagore had created his unforgettable tale Kshudhito Pashan (The Hungry Stones) and it will keep alluring thousands as more and more authors will keep creating classic horror stories keeping in tune with the current times. Yes, if there has been any transformation in the storytelling aspect, it has been in the settings, the context and the characterization, but the haunting, riveting appeal is one that is constant, over the ages.
LnC: As a genre of fiction, ghost stories or horror stories has a ready audience who love the spooky tales. What would you say are the biggest challenges in weaving an engaging and suspenseful ghost story?
Santosh Bakaya: The biggest challenge is that the writer should be able to hold the interest of the reader. There should be edge-of–the–seat suspense, a spooky environment which gives chills and thrills to the readers at every turn.
Lopa Banerjee: I would like to reiterate what Santosh Ma’am said here, and also add that since the early days of English literature, including the all-encompassing oeuvre of the gothic tales of the Victorian and Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s dramas, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the literary pleasures of horror and supernatural are derived from their emotionally gripping depiction from start to finish, apart from their blood-curdling narrations. The biggest challenge lies therein, I believe, where the writer has to be subtle and intriguing the whole time, while weaving the story, and leave no stone unturned to keep the readers glued to the story with all its spellbinding twists and turns.
LnC: Darkness There But Something More has a cross-section of authors in it – from the renowned to the upcoming, from authors who have multiple books under their credit to someone who is an amateur but talented. What was your criterion for selection and how did you maintain the quality standard uniformly amidst such a diversity of authors?
Santosh Bakaya: Well, we are indeed lucky that the response was tremendous, although we had tried to limit it only to The Significant League, many came to know about it and wanted to contribute. We could not accommodate all, because the book would have become unwieldy, and moreover it was a contest, not all who contributed could find a place in the anthology. The criterion was of course the language, the literary worth of the story and its overall impact. Let me tell you, it is indeed a collection which is sure to send chills up peoples’ spines.
Lopa Banerjee: Let me add here that our authors of this collection are all fantastic storytellers, and they have proven their mettle in both poetry and prose, in fiction and nonfiction even before the contest ‘Weave A Ghost Story’ started. Most of them have been sharing both their published and unpublished writings in The Significant League group since long, and it didn’t matter whether they are seasoned authors or rank newcomers in the publishing world, as long as the stories were depicted with finesse, as that has been the only criteria.
Apart from the contest winning stories, there are also some very fine ghostly narratives, and ‘The Boulder’ by Santosh Ma’am herself is one of them. Reena Prasad’s evocative poetic take on the spirit world in ‘By The Lake’, Dr. Sunil Sharma’s depiction of a haunted bungalow and the ghost of a Sahib in his story ‘The White Man’s Bungalow’, Michele Baron’s story ‘The Bridge’, Dr. AV Koshy’s short and sweet depiction of a young girl’s spirit in ‘A Ghost Story’ deserves special mention here. Do also read my story ‘7/A Ballygunge Terrace’, I have tried to weave an emotional family drama based in Kolkata where the human characters are more precarious than the two benign spirits.
LnC: Tell us about the spectacular launch of the book in Kolkata. How was that experience and how would you describe the readers’ response?
Santosh Bakaya: Well, the launch of Darkness There But Something More, was indeed a spectacular one. Many of the contributors, Subhajit Sanyal, Nandita Samanta, Mallika Bhaumik and of course, Lopa and me were there. An important contributor, Partho Mukherjee [Sarathi Loke nath ji] could not make it, as he had some last-minute engagement. It was a jam-packed hall that listened in pin- drop silence to extracts from the ghost stories read out by the contributors present there.
Skillfully moderated by Dr Amit Shankar, the panelists included Nibedita Bhattacharya, a corporate trainer and theatre personality, Lopa Banerjee and me. Ahava Communications [Mona Sen Gupta, and Sushruta Sarkar] and Calcutta Creative Confluence [Nandita Samanta, Partho Mukherjee, Bhaskar Jha] jointly hosted this scintillating event, which was followed by poetry reading too. The audience was indeed very supportive in buying autographed copies of the anthology, and some were magnanimous enough to buy more than one copy.
Lopa Banerjee: The Kolkata launch of Darkness There will be a much-cherished experience for both of us editors and also the entire team of ‘The Blue Pencil’ especially since it is the first editorial baby and the first literary anthology of the company. I am still overwhelmed while remembering the touch and feel of the printed copies of the book reaching my Kolkata home a couple of days before the launch. It happens to be my second editorial venture, the first one being Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas, which I co-edited with Rhiti Chatterjee Bose.
Incidentally, the venue of the book launch was the same, Weaver’s Studio in Ballygunge, and this time too, we had Mona Sengupta of Ahava Communications coordinating the event, in collaboration with Calcutta Creative Confluence, a literary and creative group based in Kolkata. It was a collaboration for the first time, but a very memorable one, where we had a very stimulating panel discussion on the presentation of ghosts and the paranormal in literature, films and the popular media, where we also talked about how the stories in the collection were curated by both of us and how the book took shape.
We tried to keep the session as interactive as possible and following that, the book reading session by the contributors were very well accepted by the audience. The audience experienced a wonderful medley of stories, a lively rendezvous and poetry, and bought the books. What more could we have asked for?
LnC: What are the next anthologies or books in the pipeline both of you are working on?
Santosh Bakaya: We have many collaborative books in the pipeline, the latest being an anthology of 28 Indian women poets, being published by the reputed, Gurugram based publishing House, Global Fraternity of India. It will hit the market any day.
Many of my solo books are also lined up, all edited and complete: two novels, a poetry collection, Din About Chins [non–fiction], a biography of Martin Luther King Jr, and the illustrated version of Oh Hark! [A long narrative poem, which fetched for me the International Reuel Award, 2014]. The illustrations for this book have been done by the internationally acclaimed composer-singer–illustrator–writer, Mr. Avijit Sarkar from Sydney.
Lopa Banerjee: Well, I consider myself very fortunate to be given the opportunity to collaborate with an author and academician and editor as prolific as Santosh Bakaya Ma’am. Santosh Ma’am has already mentioned our upcoming anthology of women poets, Cloudburst: The Womanly Deluge, to be released very soon, and surely more anthologies will be there in which we will collaborate, we are talking about them and will come up with them soon.
As for my solo books this year, my poetry collection Let The Night Sing has been published by Global Fraternity of Poets and launched in Kolkata just a day before the launch of Darkness There. Also my other book, The Broken Home and Other Stories, my English translation of eight selected fictional works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore featuring powerful, sensitive women protagonists (published by Authorspress) has been officially launched at Delhi Litexperia on August 11, a grand literature event and award ceremony in Delhi.
I am now looking forward to complete my next book, a collection of short stories titled Of Frailties and Old Flames on love, betrayal, abuse and the various nuances of human relationships. Some more poetry and translation works are also in the pipeline. Hope I can sustain the momentum of my literary writing in the days to come and continue to produce some more anthologies in collaboration with creative minds like Dr. Santosh Bakaya. These are baby steps and we have miles to go before we sleep!
Darkness There But Something More
Edited by: Dr Santosh Bakaya and Lopa Banerjee
Publisher: The Blue Pencil; 1 edition (2017)
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